Unless you own a belt or shaft-driven motorcycle, then chain cleaning and lubricating is part of your life, the same way that cleaning your bike is essential to keeping it not only looking good but working properly as well.
But there are more reasons to keep your chain clean than just looking good. The dirtier it is, with more and more foreign material and road grime stuck to it, the higher the wear - to not only the chain itself but both drive sprockets as well.
In the very worst-case scenario, the chain can break, leaving you stranded at the roadside or even causing an accident or injury. It’s not particularly common but I have seen it happen and it’s a long way to push a drive-less bike home.
And if a chain wears and the tension becomes too loose, then it’s possible it can get stuck around a wheel sprocket. I’ve seen that too and it also is not something I’d want to have to deal with again.
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So, keep the chain clean. Ideally, clean it once a month if you’re using the bike reasonably frequently. This will get rid of all the old lubricant from it so that you can add new while also removing the build-up of dirt that will cause the wear we just talked about.
Never be tempted to clean a chain with anything other than proper chain cleaner; something harsher, like petrol, can eat into the seals that ensure oil is maintained within each link and protects from within and you can actually make things much worse. Just use a product designed for the task and you’ll be fine.
What to look for
There are several considerations when selecting your chain cleaner. The first is inevitably efficiency. This isn’t something that can easily be judged by looking at their spec and is where our testing – and that of sister titles such as RiDE (available through the Bikes Unlimited app), which tested chain cleaners in its January 2022 issue – are important.
Secondly, their composition. Historically, chain cleaners, like many other products used to clean motorcycles and cars, would have been based on the most effective (harshest) solvents available but these typically would not have been very pleasant to the environment. So nowadays, more and more products are biodegradable so that they minimise their lasting effect on the environment.
Coupled with this is whether they are solvent or water-based – if the latter, they can be rinsed off easily but the former may need multiple applications of the same product to achieve a good result – expensive and potentially harmful.
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Also, the way in which they work is important; some are designed to be sprayed on and left while others require additional agitation. In fact, even the spray-on versions can benefit from some physical help on particularly dirty chains.
Types of chain
There are several types of chain and you need to make sure that the cleaner you choose is appropriate for all of them. The first is a basic roller chain used by older bikes. This has no inherent built-in lubricating qualities so requires frequent application of lube but is fairly uncommon nowadays.
The second is the very common O-ring style, where rubber O-rings retain lubricant within the links, helping minimise wear. X-ring chains are more expensive, as they are designed to minimise drag with smaller side plates and while they still use O-rings, tend to be used more on performance machines.
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Z-ring chains are fundamentally X-ring links but designed asymmetrically to give certain characteristics to the chain, such as reducing whip.
How and when to clean your chain
Ideally you should be lubricating your chain every time you wash the bike or weekly, which is when most riders wash their bike, unless it’s being used in harsh winter conditions, when many will give it a blast after every ride if there is a lot of salt on the roads.
We’d recommend cleaning the chain monthly and checking the tension at the same time though if you use your bike a lot then perhaps more frequently – it depends on how you use it.
Start by soaking the chain with your product of choice. Depending on the instructions, we’d usually leave it to dwell for a few minutes before adding another application then cleaning the chain with a chain brush.
This helps loosen any stubborn dirt and a final application of the cleaner will help remove as much as possible. Then finish the process with a rinse (if water-based) before applying chain lube once the bike is dry.
How we chose these chain cleaners
The following list of products are chosen based on a combination of factors; our own experiences using the products themselves, tests carried out by sister titles such as RiDE or buyers reviews online from retail outlets including Amazon and Sportsbikeshop.
Muc-Off Chain Cleaner
Editor's Pick - We've tested this product and will be going back to buy with our own money
No list of motorcycle products is ever complete without something from Muc-Off and this biodegradable chain cleaner is Amazon's Choice for spotless chains. It is suitable for all types of chain, O, X and Z-ring versions - and it is water-soluble too, so you spray it on, give it a moment, brush it in and then rinse off. I've used this and it's impressive and it smells good too, always a bonus.
Tru Tension Prime Shine Chain Cleaner
From the same company that devised the chain tensioning tool, this chain cleaner has been formulated to get rid of dirt, grease and grime and leave the chain ready for fresh lubricant.
Tested by Justin Hayzelden for 18 months. Quality: 5/5, Value: 5/5
"The PrimeShine Cleaner’s nozzle puts out a powerful spray, which really helps to dislodge the dirt. I give it a liberal squirt along the lower run of the chain whilst spinning the rear wheel and by the time the chain’s travelled through one complete cycle most of the filth has gone - even when it’s been caked with winter road gunk. A quick wipe with a rag removes the excess and the remainder evaporates without a trace in a few minutes. It's makes a great shed shelf companion to Tru-Tension's BananaSlip Chain Lube.
WD-40 Specialist Chain Cleaner
Forming part of the famous company's Specialist Motorbike range, this chain cleaner is good for O, X and Z-ring chains and cuts through all forms of dirt, including mud, grease, old lubricant and road grime.
Just spray it on and either brush it or let it soak in, then a quick blast off again. It helps protect the chain afterwards though the company also recommends treatment with a chain lube too. It took a RiDE Recommended award in the same product test.
Motorex Chain Cleaner
This cleaner from Swiss lubricant specialist Motorex is good for all types of chain and has been tested and approved for O-ring and X-ring varieties. It removes stuck-on grime and old lubricant and is a spray-on/wipe-off product, though as with any cleaner, a brush will help loosen stubborn residue. It claims to leave the chain good for subsequent protection with a decent chain lube.
Wurth Brake and Chain Cleaner
Keenly priced, this unassuming cleaner from Wurth gets great reviews at Sportsbikeshop, and with good reason. It will get rid of dust, dirt and grease from chains and will also remove contaminants from brake calipers and discs as well.
Reviewers seem to suggest you get two chain cleans from a 500ml can and at that price, it’s good value.
Sportsbikeshop Essentials Chain Cleaner
It's always interesting when retailers produce their own 'Essentials' range of products (think numerous supermarkets) and this chain cleaner from retail giant Sportsbikeshop should be no different. It gets great reviews on... Sportsbikeshop... and is water-soluble, so you spray it on, use a brush on stubborn dirt, then rinse it off. It's good for chains, sprockets and frames and reviews suggest it works well, though you need perhaps a little more than some others.
Motul Chain Clean
Designed for road and off-road machines, this cleaner from Motul removes encrusted dirt and dust, sand, old lubricant and any other forms of debris. It is good for all types of chain, O, X and Z-ring and it evaporates quickly.
You spray on and leave it to do its work, unless the chain is particularly filthy and you need to brush. It’s then ready for lubricating until its next clean.
Oxford Mint Chain Cleaner
This mint-scented cleaner from kit giant Oxford is designed to remove oil and dirt from the chain and it's designed to dissolve old chain lube to allow it to be removed. It's a spray-on/brush-off application and is described as having an emulsifying formula, so you can rinse it off after use, leaving the clean ready for lubricating.
It’s good for all types of chain – O, X and Z-ring and the mint scent will make the task of cleaning the chain just that little bit more pleasant. It also won RiDE’s chain cleaner product test, meaning it carries the recognised Best Buy triangle.
S100 Power Gel Chain Cleaner
Described as a 'gel' (presumably to hold on to the chain surfaces as well as penetrating the dirt), this cleaner from German brand S100 will remove grease, oil, dirt and old lubricant from the chain and sprockets, as well as the frame and the wheel rim.
It’s compatible with all chain types and is water-soluble, so you spray it on, clean stubborn dirt with a brush and rinse it off.
Silkolene Chain Cleaner
The most expensive here but it comes in a very handy spray bottle with an accurate probe, so you shouldn't waste too much. It will clean both the chain and drive components as well as the brake system, leaving no oily residue and is good for use on all types of chain.
You spray on, allow it to soak in and do its work, agitate with a brush or cloth for stubborn dirt then let it dry and apply your lubricant.
XCP Professional Universal Parts Cleaner
While not specifically a chain cleaner, this universal parts cleaner from XCP is a solvent-based product that is sprayed on and allowed time to dwell before either agitating with a brush for very dirty chains or wiped off to leave a lube-ready chain behind.
There is no mention of using it on wheels or frames, though some reviewers say it works well – make your own judgement on that.